By 13 May 2019 | Categories: Thought Leadership



South African firms with double-digit growth are more than twice as likely to actively be using Artificial Intelligence (AI) compared to lower-growth businesses.

This is according to research by Microsoft, Altimeter Group and the University of St Gallen in Switzerland into how business leaders view the impact of AI on leadership.

Microsoft partnered with Susan Etlinger, an industry analyst focused on business and ethical implications of Artificial Intelligence with the Altimeter Group and Heike Bruch, Professor at and Director of the Institute for Leadership and Human Resources Management at the University of St. Gallen to produce the Pulse AI Research Report, which surveyed 1150 leaders across EMEA and the US. 

Top achievers

Globally 37.8% of high-growth companies and 17.1% of lower-growth companies are actively implementing AI.  In South Africa, the percentage of high-growth companies who are likely to be using AI is 31.8% versus 18.5% for low growth companies. 

High-growth companies are defined as those growing in double digits and low-growth companies as those experiencing single-digit growth.

In South Africa, 41.7% of companies are companies expect to use more AI in the coming year to improve decision making (45.5% globally) – as compared to 20% (30.8% globally) of low-growth companies.

More local high-growth companies are also looking at using AI to optimise processes, 37.5% (40% globally), and to develop new products and services, 45% (33% globally) in the next year than lower growth companies at 31.3% (33.3% globally) and 7.1% (24.7% globally) respectively.

No time to waste

“What’s striking about the research is the difference between double-digit growth companies and those with lower growth. Double-digit growth companies are further along in their AI deployments, but also see greater urgency in using more AI. They are looking at a one to three-year timeframe – often times really focused on the coming year. Lower growth companies are looking at more of a five-year timeframe.  What this says to me is that the more you know, the higher your sense of urgency is,” says Etlinger.

According to the research, successful leaders in business are looking to use AI to augment decision making, drive efficiencies and help drive growth, including job creation. 

High-growth leaders are not only using more AI now, they also feel a greater urgency to deploy more AI in the immediate future – to drive efficiencies as well as growth. Furthermore, 87.3% of high-growth companies intend to invest in decision-making AI in one to three years versus 66.7% of low-growth companies who plan to invest in decision-making AI in three to five years.

In South Africa, these numbers are 86.6% for high-growth companies and 72.8% for low-growth companies.

Defining priorities

As companies are deploying more AI (so as AI becomes more prevalent in a company) – it is freeing up business leaders to focus on other activities. When asked where leaders would like to invest more of their time and energy as AI becomes more common, motivating and inspiring employees was the number-one choice. This was followed by identifying market opportunities and setting the right goals.

“Leaders themselves are thinking about how AI can unlock their own potential.  As AI becomes more pervasive, leaders’ number-one priority is spending more energy on inspiring employees.

Realising the true benefit of AI is not simply about being fast adopters of innovative technology. Companies must build their own digital capabilities and innovations. Simply: every company needs to think of itself as a digital company,” explains Lillian Barnard Managing Director at Microsoft South Africa.

AI for all

Leaders actively embracing AI to augment their own expertise and strategic thinking helping in areas such as direction-setting and problem-solving and the majority of leaders want support on refining their leadership skills as more AI is deployed. 

“Microsoft’s goal is to ensure AI is available to everyone in a trusted manner and importantly all AI systems are designed to enhance what people do and our approach to AI is governed by both compliance and values. The company stressed that it is committed to providing education around AI, to dispel some of the myths and misinformation surrounding it. The research revealed that more leaders know about AI, the more they recognise that they need to take responsibility for ethical AI deployment – something which is at the core of Microsoft’s approach to AI.

“Microsoft believes that, when designed with people at the centre, AI can extend human capabilities, free people up for more creative and strategic endeavours, and help people and organisation achieve more,” says Barnard. “Business leaders have an important part to play in ensuring AI does not replace human ingenuity but augments it. It’s not just about what AI can do, but what it should do,” she concluded.



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